Blinding Obsession (蔽)

Only a rich thinker will inspire schools based on opposing interpretations of the same book. It is not surprising that the two greatest early Confucians should pick out and develop two different strands of the Master’s thought into markedly different political philosophies.  Mencius, who insisted on the fundamental goodness of human nature, made Ren or Humane Goodness the essential core of our work as human beings. Xunzi, on the other hand, was less optimistic, and viewed human nature as innately selfish and destructive; consequently, he amplified on Confucius’ notion of Li, Propriety, as the principle that trains an antisocial species to become capable of social life. Confucius himself notoriously avoided making any assertions about human nature. Both Mencius and Xunzi lived through violent times, so the difference between their views cannot be simply attributed to different life experience. In the following weeks I’ll be writing on Xunzi, the less well known of the two. 

   With Xunzi we find ourselves far from the cryptic aphoristic style of the old Masters; instead, we get extended passages in which an insight is unfolded or an argument sharpened. Observe the elegant lucidity of a refined pessimist as he describes 蔽 () , “blinding obsession,” which is the special blight of statesmanship :

The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles. . . . Nowadays the feudal lords follow different theories of government and the philosophers of the hundred schools teach different doctrines. Inevitably some teach what is right and some, what is wrong; some rulers govern well and others bring about disorder. Even the ruler of a chaotic state or the follower of a pernicious doctrine will undoubtedly in all sincerity seek what is proper and try to better his condition. But he is jealous and mistaken in his understanding of the Way and hence allows other men to lead him astray. He clings to his familiar ways and is loath to hear them spoken ill of; he judges everything on the basis of his old prejudices; and when he encounters some different theory, he is loath to hear it praised. Thus he moves farther and farther away from a condition of order, and yet never ceases to believe that he is doing right. Is this not what it means to be obsessed by a small corner of truth and to fail in the search for proper ways? If one fails to use his mind, then black and white may be right before his eyes and he will not see them; thunder or drums may be sounding in his ear and he will not hear them. How much more so with a man whose mind is obsessed! (Hsün Tzu, tr. Burton Watson, p,121)

We easily find prominent examples of this kind of obsession in our own political life: not only fanatics and idealogues, but also people of more moderate ideals who nonetheless can become violently fixated. Xunzi is shrewd in pointing out that such a person might be perfectly “sincere,” and that there is usually a gradual progression towards disaster as the initial fixation is reinforced and augmented. For a statesman 蔽 may well be the most perilous flaw because, in a position that demands a grasp of complex wholes and the subtle tensions between parts pulling in different directions, obsessiveness narrows the view and in doing so loses the whole. Obviously this is also true for leadership on a smaller scale, such as managing a business or heading a family. 

   In one-on-one interactions too we have experienced 蔽: at the painful end of a doomed relationship or friendship, we often realize that the signs of future disintegration were available to us in the first five mnutes of the acquaintance. Through attraction or other kinds of enchantment, we overrode our better sense and invested our energies in a version of the encounter heavily edited to suit our desires. We could have noticed; indeed, our friends will gently observe that something is “off” but not press the point for fear of alienating us.  If we had been capable of intelligently assimilating all the details of the encounter instead of just the ones we want, we would not have gone hurtling down the dark alley of intensifying obsession. The same tendency towards 蔽 can be recognized when we fortify an aversion to people who have hurt or displeased us. Stepping back and attempting to see things whole can have a healthy dampening effect on an incipient fixation.

   Does Xunzi see 蔽 as inevitable to all but a born sage, and thus needing only the constant presence of correctives, such as prudent advisors and friends? Indeed, is it possible to educate us out of 蔽 completely? If not, then is it sufficient for us to become more aware and intelligent about 蔽? Perhaps we begin gaining such intelligence by sitting down and systematically studying the beginnings, middles, and ends of our own fixations — understanding the “near at hand” in order to understand the same phenomenon in other people.



2 thoughts on “Blinding Obsession (蔽)”

  1. Krishnan,
    The Western world would be a better place now that there is you to explain Confucianism. All things said and done Confucius taught about ‘learning’ as in mutual ‘one to one’ interactive ‘conversational’ dialectic discussion.
    Both Mencius (and his predisposed or inherent almost Christian goodness in mankind) and Xunzi (and his contradictory stance of innate human foibles) are there to trigger our ‘learning’ and to inculcate perspicacity in our ‘thinking’ as in fluidity in thought, like bamboo swaying in the breeze,
    I prefer Xunzi because he seems more earthly, realistic and practical in terms of ‘teaching’. Surely, it should better to start off by saying that this is bad do not do it, rather than this is good and the ideal and that is how you should be. Truly, from my own life experience, it is easier to appreciate what you have and be contented with what you have and to know and appreciate what it is like to be at the wrong side of the scale, when you have experienced poverty, hardship, failure, rejection, heartache and loss. I, personally learnt more from being told or found what I did was wrong or bad or was a mistake.
    But to balance one’s foothold on the trapeze of life we also need Mencius and his positivism to reassure us that we are on the right track, so we can aspire to bring balance and harmony to our life, for in their own ways we need the sunshine and the drought and the rainfall and and the storms in our life, like tempering iron to make steel.
    No doubt in the future you will discourse on Zhuangzi and his Taoist lessons from nature that the primordial roots of life have inherently both good and bad in them i.e the yin and the yang and that harmony is neither just good nor no bad but the balancing of good and bad, balancing the positive and the negative, balancing the yin and yang forces in us – which is what the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean is essentially about. It gets complicated when we learn that what is good or bad depends on the subject, the object and what is required to bring equilibrium between the subject and the object. To everything there is a timing and a season!
    And then later when you bring in the Buddhist teachings of equanimity, of managing ‘karma’, of universal consciousness instead of self-consciousness, all things will start to make sense as to what is meant by the ‘Three Pillars of Chinese Society’ – Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism – for they are all inter-related.
    Thank you. That was refreshing!


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